Rock’n’roll is a beautiful lie.
A gorgeous, shimmering, inspiring, invigorating, energizing, calming, challenging, reassuringly ordinary beast…but a beautiful lie.
It promises rebellion and engenders conformity; it calls for revolution and settles for a hair dye; it waves the banner of art and flies the flag of the pedestrian; it dresses the common in leather and calls it uncommon, the fascist in cowboy boots and calls him a libertarian; it charges you for the right to hear songs of the free, and it sings of peace and offers nothing but pdfs.
It’s very simple. Music is a brilliant and effective and extremely important element to our social acclamation, even if it’s a liar. In his or her life, a music listener will go through five stages: From infancy to approximately age 10, music is an experience shared with the family; it facilitates the learning of language and shared social customs, and underlines the bonding of the family unit. Second: music becomes a way for an adolescent to differentiate themselves from their family and bond with their peers. This is the time when children share music and affection for musical personalities with others in their peer group, but in a way that excludes the parent. This stage generally lasts until age 12 or 13. When a child reaches puberty and/or that moment when the foreshadows of high school become greater than the shadow of elementary school, Stage Three emerges: having previously utilized music to differentiate themselves from their family and bond with a peer group, a teenager will use music to differentiate themselves from other members of their peer group.
Stage 4, which may emerge as early as 25, but generally settles in around 30, is when we find ourselves less didactic in our choices and more willing to compromise for the sake of expanding our social and economic circles (and because we recognize that perfectly nice and useful people may have very different tastes than ours). Stage 5, which is also nebulous in regard to age of onset, is nostalgia; this is when we happily embrace musical memories from all prior four stages, without the weight of social pressure.
All of this underlines that there is a very positive and necessary function that music plays in all of our lives, from the most rabid record collector to the most casual music fan. But…
If you’re still with me…
What music is not, however, is an instigator of great social change, nor does it incite revolution; it may be the soundtrack for the great political shifts of the last half- century, but it does not lead or provoke those changes. That is a myth. A haircut is not a revolution; it’s a haircut. The presence of a Doors or Jefferson Airplane song in a documentary about how shitty the Vietnam War was doesn’t mean that anything about that song actually effected the course of the war. The Sex Pistols didn’t incite any true destabilization of the Monarchy or even instruct meaningful dialogue about it; they just incited people to wear t-shirts with a picture of the Queen with a safety pin through her nose.
Music is, at best, a camp follower when it comes to the stirring of rebellion and true cultural shifts, and at worst, false messiahs who may even impede active political and social modification.
Think: if Rock’n’Roll wasn’t a lie, which is to say if it wasn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a sheep in biker’s clothing and a biker in Gandhi’s clothing, if it wasn’t m/billionaire’s pretending to be hobos and Ronald Reagan’s pretending to be Elizabeth Warrens, the biggest bands in the world would be those who only spoke the truth, truths about the deepest art becoming the most meaningful noise; if Rock’n’Roll wasn’t a lie, Suicide would be Bon Jovi, Billy Childish or Jon Langford would be Springsteen, Tony Conrad would the Velvet Underground, and Gerry Hannah would be Billy Joe from Green Day (Hannah is the Vancouver punk rocker and bassist for the Subhumans who spent a decade in jail because he didn’t just sing about taking down big corrupt corporations, he actually tried to bomb them; I’m not advocating that, by any means, I’m just saying let’s see Billy Fucking Joe risk a night in jail by actually trying to turn words into action).
When I consider what the greatest Rock’n’Roll song is, it has to be a song that explodes in the furious, major-chord fury that I hear in my dreams of pure chord shambhala; it has to be sweet and angry, it has to pound and soar, it has to be beautiful and gruesome; but it also has to acknowledge, in a completely natural way, all the amazing ironies, contradictions, lies and half-truths inherent in the beautiful beast that has (at most) defined our lives with its’ lies, and (at the very least) been the liar’s soundtrack of all our other life’s lies.
So, friends, when I talk about the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Song, I am not talking about my favorite song, or the best song, or the most artistic song or the most popular song. If we were talking about my personal “favorite” songs, this would be far easier: I’d be raving to you about “Neat Neat Neat” by the Damned or “Hallogallo” by Neu! or “Albatross” by PiL or “Surf’s Up” by the Beach Boys or “Know Your Product” by the Saints or “I Got A Right” by the Stooges or “The Lonely Surfer” by Jack Nitzsche. That would be easy.
But the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Song has to be a song that gets it, while at the same time celebrating it, it has to be a song that damns it and praises it and all at the same time, it has to be a song you want to hear over and over and over. It has to be a song that sings about the Big Lie while at the same time rejoicing in it; it has to be a song that defies the Big Lie while slamming you with chords that perpetuate it.
Without any doubt, the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Song is “Memphis Egypt” by the Mekons from their album Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Over crunching, dynamic, ligature-force punk guitars and a chord structure the Pistols or Husker Du would envy, it tells the whole story of The Beautiful Liar; and it compels us to consider that we could have – we should have – taken that power, the power Rock’n’Roll had to change our dialogue about race and money and bullying and sexism, and actually used this power for something, something other than a soundtrack to apply pimple cream; we should have used this gorgeous goliath, this gracious glimmering, glittering Golem, for something other than the perpetuation of all our every day lies about the way we deal with our world, our peers, our government, our land.
I cannot describe the joy this song brings me on a purely musical level, but when it is coupled with the extraordinary call-to-arms, a TRUE call-to-arms that the Mekons have trumpeted for the last thirty years, that’s when it becomes The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Song. Now, you can find it on your own, and I will just quote one single lyric that in two lines says EVERYTHING I tried to say in 108 lines:
The battles we fought were long and hard
Just not to be consumed by rock’n’roll…
Yes, music should totally and completely be about sex and pissing off your parents and music to shop by; but it can and should be about something else, too, and the first thing you need to admit is that you’ve been lied to: those punk rock bands lied to you – they were selling you hair gel and cigarettes, not useful engagement – John Lennon lied to you – he sang “Imagine No Possessions” when he owned an entire apartment in one of the most expensive apartment buildings in the world JUST to house his wives furs – he was a great man and a great singer/composer but he was no working class hero, and not even fit to draw a chalk outline around the shadow of Jon Langford or Billy Childish or Billy Bragg or Oscar Brand or even Benny Goodman, who risked EVERYTHING just for the right to have men of a different color perform in his band.
I am sick of the lies. I am sick of the consumer/listener/fan just ASSUMING something is political because it has a few key words in the lyrics and it dresses right and mumbles the right shit in interviews. I wish, I sorely fucking wish, that rock would one day truly be the active, engaged, suggestive, useful voice of political and social change, and was as creative as it always pretended to be; I wish it WALKED like a duck instead of just putting on feathers and quacking like one.
But until then, we’ve got the song “Memphis Egypt” by the Mekons.
Some small portions of this piece previously appeared and were barely read in The Big Takeover, and I thank Jack Rabid for inviting me to explore some of these thoughts in his wonderful publication.